Humble giants; flies on the wall

Panther

TAKE TWO INTELLECTUALS with something to say, put them together and record, transcribe and publish their words. Effectively, this is what you get in Footnotes for the Panther, which sees William Kentridge chatting to his friend Denis Hirson about life, the universe, his art, the craft of writing and being in the world.

On the one hand, this curious little book, designed and made with the kind of properness and dignity that lent the hard cover book its longevity as well as its sense of character, a hundred years ago, fits in the 19th century construct of belles lettres: pretty words cast out for posterity. And this makes it feel oddly precious and decidedly prescient and ironic in its sense of nostalgia.

Hirson (b. 1951) is a Paris-based writer. Born in South Africa, he was the son of anti-apartheid activist Baruch Hirson, who was jailed by the South African government for many years. Denis graduated in South Africa in the 1970s and then went to Paris where he made a life around theatre and literature, and where he still lives today.

Kentridge (b. 1955) is a South African-based artist, the son of Sydney Kentridge, who was one of the leading voices in many significant trials that South Africa weathered, including the Treason Trial, the Rivonia Trial and the inquest into the death of Steve Biko. In many respects, William needs no introduction — the meteoric rise of his fame and world respect has rendered his name known everywhere.

The two men knew each other as boys. As they chat, you realise an easy camaraderie which enables difficult questions to be asked and complicated answers to be teased out. The tone differs in the two conversations which were presented for an audience, and the other, more intimate eight, but this doesn’t make them any less readable.

So what you get when you read this book is a give and take, a recitative play between two men who have allowed you to sit, like a proverbial fly on the wall, as they wrestle with panthers conjured by Rainer Maria Rilke and South African nostalgia, with the detritus of Marikana and a brass band from Sebokeng township, among other things. It’s a foray into the work of Kentridge that reaches from his Jeu du Paume exhibition in June of 2010 to Amsterdam and the rehearsals of his interpretation of Alban Berg’s opera Lulu in May of 2015. Lots of work happened in that period.

Without an overriding voice, or internally edited-in contextual material, the work presupposes that you know what they’re talking about. And this, in many respects, is its downfall. It’s also its strength. As you slip deeper and deeper into the words of Kentridge and Hirson, you begin to hear their voices in your head. There’s a profound sense of humility in Kentridge’s mien; there’s humour and sadness; an understanding of the context of the art world, and a reach into philosophy and myth, the magic of chance and the madness of unusual juxtapositions, from violence in Betty Boop cartoons to the ways in which Kentridge represents himself in his drawings, films and other works. It is here where you learn of photographer David Goldblatt’s “fuck-all landscape” and how it makes drawing sense in a South African highveld context, and the thrill of drawing a piece of paper as it blows in the wind.

The work touches on everything from Kentridge’s collaborative talents, to his relentless work ethic and his Norton lectures. These, delivered in 2011-12, as Six Drawing Lessons, were commissioned by Harvard University and put him alongside thinkers of the ilk of Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, Octavio Paz, John Cage, Orhan Pamuk, to celebrate “poetry in the broadest sense”. But in discussion, these also represent a rich cross-pollination of Kentridgean energy which considers courage and growing old, confidence in a variety of mediums and that question of so what, in the development of an artwork.

And all at once, you reach the end, and you have this powerful urge to start again. At once. It’s a gem of a publication which doesn’t kowtow to rules. Call it a vanity piece, if you must; but it’s a delightful dialogue to challenge the idea of formal research, as it places everything on the proverbial table. It’s detailed and nuanced, direct and mesmerising. And one reading just doesn’t do it justice.

  • Footnotes for the Panther: Conversations between William Kentridge and Denis Hirson is published by Fourthwall Books, Johannesburg (2017).

Reznek and Muyanga celebrating Madiba from within the belly of Africa

Renee Reznek in her North London studio. Photograph supplied.

Renee Reznek in her North London studio. Photograph supplied.

Speaking of the power of music, internationally feted pianist Renée Reznek brings a brand new work to South Africa next week, which she commissioned herself. Entitled Hade Tata, the piece for solo piano is composed by Neo Muyunga and celebrates Nelson Mandela. Reznek performs at this, the seventh annual Johannesburg International Mozart Festival, before embarking on a small concert tour in South Africa.

Born and raised in Pietermaritzburg, Reznek’s love for the piano was, she believes, grown through a deep sense of loss she experienced as a toddler. “My mother was recuperating from polio treatment and my father took her on an extended European holiday. I was four. My brother was two. We were put in the care of my father’s mother, and also an ‘honorary grandmother’. Because she was a retired piano teacher, my parents hired a piano for her to play. I was spellbound by that piano: I believe that it and the music that came out of it filled the hole my parents’ absence brought. The bond between me and the instrument has never broken.”

As a child, Reznek studied under Adolf Hallis. She graduated with distinction from the University of Cape Town with a Bachelor of Music degree, studying with Lamar Crowson.

Today, she is celebrated as a champion of music from the so-called Second Viennese School, which forged music by Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. She told My View last week: “My interest in this type of music was fuelled by two people at the South African College of Music in Cape Town, who completely changed my direction: Professor Gunther Pulvermacher was an extraordinary man. He was a German Jew with a great passion for twentieth century music and his teaching was absolutely revelatory for me. This music was not popular in South Africa at the time” – it still isn’t, really. “And James May, a senior lecturer in harmony and counterpoint whilst I was a student. He gave me the opportunity to play Schoenberg’s Opus 25 in a concert.

“Fired up with enthusiasm, I said ‘yes!’ In truth, I had no idea what this music was like, and when I dug into the musical language, I was horrified! I could not make head or tail of it.

“But then, after some guidance, and armed with a lot of hunger to do well, I became hooked. To play this kind of music, you become like an archaeologist on an excavation, and you find the familiar language of dance suites underneath the unfamiliar language,” Reznek speaks of ground-breaking 12-tone music for which Schoenberg was known and celebrated – and also viewed not without controversy and suspicion. “I became completely fascinated with this music.

“My mentors – including Susan Bradshaw who I studied piano with – opened doors for me.” After graduating from UCT, Reznek accepted a scholarship at the Mozarteum Summer School and then a piano scholarship to study under Gyorgy Sandor at the University of Michigan. Having completed two masters degrees in Performance and Music History, Reznek focused her PhD at Oxford University on the Second Viennese School.

“Mostly the festival organisers have given me leeway to play what I want,” she commented on the repertoire she will perform at this year’s Mozart Festival. “The festival’s artistic director, concert pianist Florian Uhlig, requested I play Claude Debussy’s 1904 work, Masques – in line with the festival’s theme of Masquerade, which I was happy to do.

“But as Peter Klatzow is also the composer-in-residence of this year’s Mozart Festival, I am playing a work by him, too. It is years since I played Klatzow’s work; his musical language has changed completely. The piece I have chosen rests on Schoenberg’s influence: my first love,” she laughs.

“But my programme includes new works by contemporary British composer Sadie Harrison, as well. I wanted to showcase what’s going on in contemporary London’s music scene,” she adds.

Neo Muyanga. Photograph courtesy www.uct.ac.za

Neo Muyanga. Photograph courtesy www.uct.ac.za

Arguably her programme’s draw card is a work she commissioned South African musician Neo Muyanga to compose a few years ago. Named Hade Tata, the solo piano work is a tribute to Nelson Mandela. “I am the only one who has played it so far,” the work has not yet debuted in South Africa – its performance at the Mozart Festival will be the first.

Reznek is using crowd-funding via indiegogo to record this piece. “It needs to be heard. Creative, wonderful things are happening South Africa: much that is valuable.” The CD is named From Africa.

Reznek met Muyanga when he first came to London with the Magnet Theatre production of Every Day Every Year I Am Walking – an award-winning piece about exile. (Magnet Theatre is the brainchild of Reznek’s younger sister Jennie) Muyanga was playing incidental music for the production which he had composed.

“When Nelson Mandela was nearing the end of his life, I – and millions of other people – became very emotional and also distressed that I was not in South Africa. I felt homesick and alienated. I connected with the situation, as I must, musically. I needed a piece of music to explain the feelings churning about in my head and heart.

“I was very honoured Neo agreed to compose the piece. I approached him because I wanted something to come from the belly of Africa. When I had met Neo in London, he told me that he had been present as a journalist at the Victor Verster Prison gates, when Mandela was released – he was working as a journalist to keep the habit of his music alive. Composing this piece was for him like the closing of an important circle. Neo’s piece progressively describes the moment when Mandela was walking towards the prison gates.”

Hade Tata, in Fanagalo, the pidgin language developed through SA mining culture, means ‘Sorry, Father’. The work is a poetic representation of Mandela’s feelings in coming out of jail. “It begins with a dirge-like walk. Deep anxiety is reflected. Questions are pondered: Did he wait too long? Was he too old to run the country? Were the expectations of him too big? And then the work becomes celebratory.”

Reznek speaks of the development of this work. “It has been an incredible journey. People have cried all the way through its performance. Is it because of the story? Maybe. But maybe it’s because of the music. Neo’s music so beautifully expresses this iconic story that we all relate to. It is our story too.”

  • Reznek performs work by Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Sadie Harrison, Peter Klatzow, Neo Muyanga and Hendrik Hofmeyr on January 29 at Northwards House, Parktown. Visit join.mozart-festival.org for the full programme and booking details.
  • Her brief SA concert tour includes performances in Pietermaritzburg, Stellenbosch and Cape Town. Visit reneereznek.com for more details.
  • Reznek’s indiegogo campaign: http://tinyurl.com/mma6w64